Thinking Out Loud

June 3, 2018

My Favorite Worship Song Doesn’t Work Congregationally

The blue Pacific on a summer’s day
Rushing in to meet the yellow sand
The view’s terrific I see Monterrey
Lookin’ mighty fine from where I stand
The water dances in the sun’s reflection
A thousand silver birds fly in my direction
Now isn’t it beauty, isn’t it sweet perfection?

If someone were to ask me my favorite worship song, I suppose I could easily think of songs like “Shout to the Lord,” “Majesty,” “How Great Is Our God,” “Revelation Song,” and a number of hymns including “Our Great Savior,” which you may or may not know.

But not every praise song is meant to be sung congregationally, and we do ourselves a disservice when we try to take every great worship chorus and force congregations to sing songs that perhaps don’t match up with their personal expression of adoration to God. Sometimes we’re just meant to listen to someone else’s thoughts.

The song embedded below is an example of that. The late Tom Howard wrote “One More Reason” with a first verse that expresses the beauty of God in creation that he is familiar with growing up in California, with its references to the Pacific Ocean and Monterrey; the spirit of which was captured by the person who made the tribute video. To sing this in our church, the first thing I would want to do is make that verse more generic, but I’ve never got around to writing different lyrics because I rather enjoy the song just the way he wrote it.

The sky is singing, the earth proclaims
Always one more reason to praise Your name.

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March 20, 2018

What’s Wrong With Christian Radio is Purely Intentional

For those of you who don’t know her, meet Becky. Becky is the fictional target audience for Christian radio stations. Christianity Today helped define her back in 2007:

Her name is Becky.

You probably know her. She’s recently turned 40, but is not quick to admit it. She’s a Christian and a devoted wife and mother. She drives a mini-van. Half-melted crayons roll around on the floor as she stops at a light en route to her daughter’s Tuesday night soccer practice. She laughs sometimes, chagrined that she is the very “Soccer Mom” they talk about come election time. Becky lives in the suburbs, likes to read, enjoys the women’s retreats at church, is struggling to remember algebra so she can help her son with his homework, and is a regular volunteer at the food pantry.

One more thing about Becky, a very important fact for this discussion: she listens to the local Christian music station almost exclusively…

We’ll get back to her in a moment.

On the weekend my wife pointed out something that the more I thought about it, the more profound it seems. She said something like, “There’s more variety on any given contemporary Christian music album than what is played on Christian radio.” In other words, the songs chosen to be the single off the albums tend to get chosen because they all match the station sound and therefore they all sound alike.

In my mind, I envisioned the following diagram where each line represents the range of the songs on any given artist’s album — some exploring a greater number of musical genres — and the dots representing the songs selected to be featured on the radio.

Wouldn’t you like to hear some of the songs from the edge of each artist’s collection?

I owe a lot of my spiritual nurture to Contemporary Christian Music, but I’m not a fan of what it has become. A year ago 20 The Countdown Magazine did a special show on the Best of Christian Worship. It could have been called Chris Tomlin’s Greatest Hits. There was a song which we knew by Robin Mark where they chose to play a Chris Tomlin version, again either because it matched the sound of that show, or because… well we won’t go there. Any possibility for musical diversity was eliminated. (Listening to how many times the host said “Chris Tomlin” during that two hour show became a bit of a drinking game.)

Not everybody likes Becky. In a January, 2012 article in CCM Magazine, Matt Papa, not sparing the use of Caps Lock, wrote:

I love Becky. I really do. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this. Becky needs to be ministered to just like I do and just like everyone else does. But Christian radio/industry people: please MINISTER TO HER!! Stop giving her what she WANTS….GIVE HER WHAT SHE NEEDS and that is the GOSPEL….or stop calling yourself “christian”. There is NOTHING “christian” about telling someone who has cancer that they are OK. Stop tickling her ears. Becky is a human being who needs to hear the truth of Christ, not an object to use for your financial gain. Woe to you. And here’s a novel idea: Why not target other people besides Becky?!?! The gospel has no demographics! Christ shed His blood for all people everywhere and you have misrepresented Him. I pray with all my heart that the money tables in your temple would soon be overturned.

Pastor Gabe Hughes, who apparently has some insider knowledge wrote this in the summer of 2016:

Like most radio and television programming, Christian radio caters to a specific demographic, and that demographic is women between the ages of 20 and 50 (give or take). Whether or not Christian radio is doing it on purpose, that demographic is also mostly white.

It gets way more specific than that: this target woman lives in suburbia in a house with a mortgage, drives a mini-van, has three kids, a dog and a cat, a husband who works full-time, she also works but it’s probably part-time, has a household income between $55 and $70K, vacations in July, doesn’t have enough time to read her Bible but she has enough time to journal, loves Beth Moore and Joyce Meyer, and goes to church about 3 times a month. This woman even has a name — Becky.

Some radio stations will put up a mock picture of this woman in the studio, and the DJs are told to look at it and know that’s who they’re talking to. I’ve attended seminars where this was the whole focus of each session: Becky, Becky, Becky. The entire radio station is programmed for her — not her husband and not her kids. Giving glory to God is incidental, or it’s presented like this: “By reaching Becky, you’re giving glory to God.” Becky’s name is mentioned more often at these conferences than God’s name is.

This is unofficially referred to as Becky Programming or the Becky Mentality. The gospel-minded might recognize this as exactly how not to evangelize. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ, right (Galatians 3:28)? But rather than giving an audience what they need to hear, Christian radio sections out a particular audience and gives her what the research says she wants to hear…

Why do so many of the songs sound alike?
Because radio is about producing the least number of negatives. Technically a radio station is not actually trying to give you something that you like. They’re trying to give you something you don’t dislike. As long as they can remain as even as possible without too much variation or fluctuation, they’re more likely to keep you on their radio station and not flipping to something else.

When the radio station maintains a continuous blend of sound, it just kind of melts into the background and you become oblivious that you’re still listening to it. You know how when you drive the same route to work every day, sometimes entire stretches of the trip will go by, and you’ll wonder where those miles went? Listening to the radio is kind of like that…

Even when it comes to production quality, songs have been equalized to be at the exact same volume level. Put on your headphones, find a song from the late 80s or early 90s, and give it a listen. Then pick a song from within the past decade and listen at the same volume. Notice the difference? The older song has more dynamics, highs and lows, crescendo and decrescendo, and the more current song is a lot louder and dynamically consistent throughout.

The reason why every single Christian recording artist sounds like they’re recording the exact same song is because they know K-Love won’t play it unless it sounds like every other song. Yes, Christian radio is the very reason every Christian artist sounds the same. It’s not necessarily the artist’s fault. They just have to play along (pun implied).

(There’s a lot more; I’ll be honest, I just wanted to copy and paste Gabe’s entire article, so click here to read more.

The early Christian music radio hosts were typical of FM radio guys in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There was no single off the album, they just picked a song they liked. They exposed and celebrated the things creative Christian songwriters and performers were doing across North America, and if you got lucky, some of the things from the UK (which even today we rarely get to hear, everything being so Nashville-centric.)

There are still some great songs being written and great albums being recorded, but I must say I feel sorry for the kids today who only know Christian music’s after and missed out on Christian music’s before. Fortunately for them, broadcasting is not the primary means of transmission in their generation. Indie artists survive and even flourish on alternative media, such as Fresh Life Radio which itself provides balance by playing some of the CCM fare, or the notable broadcast exception, Project 88.7 in Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho. 

Full disclosure: The business I own also sells Christian music. Sales are down. I am increasingly convinced that downloading or online sales of physical product are not blame. Many in the next generation are not hearing anything that captivates them. Groups are recognizable, but it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate one male solo artist from another.

The push for homogeneity is killing Christian radio.

Blogger and Pastor Gabriel Hughes posted this Becky collage in the article linked above. Maybe you know her.

 


Related? This was posted yesterday in conjunction with a new book release. The headline says it all: The founder of Christian rock music would’ve hated what it’s become.

February 17, 2018

The Sin of Marketing Offers

Early in the week, I was contacted to see if I knew how someone could get their hands on a song by Casting Crowns titled Listen to Our Hearts. They believed it was on the album Come to the Well, but they couldn’t locate it there.

A little research later, I determined that the song was a bonus track which was only sold to people who pre-ordered the album on iTunes.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened.

In the past few years there have been entire albums by Christian artists which were only available at LifeWay stores. Here, I need to point out that there are no LifeWay stores in Canada or the UK, so fans of the artists in questions simply could not obtain the product, no matter how hard they tried.

There’s something about this that just strikes me as wrong.

I saw an article the other day about “The Sin of Partiality.” Not surprisingly it began in the book of James (2:1-4):

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

My brain connected the article with the song request.

I know Casting Crowns needs to make money, and I’m not saying they should give their songs away for free — the influence of Keith Green notwithstanding — but somewhere between open source and restricted access there should be a balance.

I posted a fan-posted YouTube edition the song on Twitter as a type of protest. That way some people got to hear it that day. I added that a year, or two years later, “the song never surfaced in any form.” That brought this reader response:

To which I responded,

I realize that Christian retail is fraught with moral and ethical perils. The one I hear the most is, “The Bible should be free.” (I always have free copies to meet that objection.) I don’t expect the people at iTunes to live by Christian standards, but surely the people at LifeWay must know, in the back of their minds, that at the same time they’re doing something for their customers, they are denying others, right? (In a future article, we’ll look at the related idea of giving greater discounts to people buying in quantity, which is always an ethical dilemma.)

I just think anytime you say “exclusive offer” you’re letting some people in and shutting some people out.

At that point, the connection to what James says about favoritism is valid.


Note: The song was a collaboration between three artists. The versions by Steven Curtis Chapman and Geoff Moore have proved equally elusive in 2018.

December 12, 2016

Hillsong United Live at The Forum: A Review of Let Hope Rise

let-hope-rise-dvdIf there’s a single takeaway from the 1-hour, 43-minute documentary Let Hope Rise, it’s that the members of Hillsong United are totally amazed and humbled at the band’s worldwide influence and popularity.

The film played in theaters in North America just a few months ago, and is releasing on DVD and Blu-Ray December 20th, just in time for Christmas. A concert at The Forum in Los Angeles provides the storyline, with scenes in the dressing room just before they go onstage book-ending the movie.

This is very much a documentary, not a concert film. There are a couple of songs which play in their entirety. Others are edited somewhat, or transition between the songwriting collaborative process and the finished product onstage. The focus here is to provide a behind-the scenes look.

Again, this is a film about Hillsong United, not the Hillsong worship program in general. There is a far too short, ten minute nod to the history and scope of the parent church in Sydney, but its worship teams aren’t in view here; neither is the younger band Hillsong Y&F (Young and Free) mentioned.

The members of the band obviously know each other well and trust each other. When they are about to go on at The Forum, the songs are basically so very fresh that one of the guys says of another something to the effect, ‘He’s about to walk on the stage and sing words he’s never sung into a microphone before.’

It was interesting that on the one hand, the band talks about the fact they work for the church and are not particularly well paid, but on the other hand are able to enjoy an oceanfront house in California to write songs. Back home in Australia, the members of the band appear to live quite modestly. Some have very young families, with their wives staying home to take care of the kids.

We had planned to watch this with a full stereo sound system but a last minute glitch caused us to relocate. At first I was disappointed, but the music both is and isn’t the focus; it is more about providing the inside look at the band using material filmed for the movie and archival footage the band owned.

Hillsong’s influence on worship music around the world is immeasurable and Hillsong United’s influence on youth culture and youth ministry is equally significant. Anyone who is a fan of United will probably want to watch this several times. Onscreen lyrics are provided on a few songs for those who even want to sing along.


Movie has been provided courtesy of Pure Flix Entertainment and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc

November 18, 2016

Indie Music Doesn’t Come Cheap: A Balance Sheet by Recording Artist jj heller

Christian music artist jj heller (usually not written using capital letters) has just produced a Christmas album, Unto Us (nothing but capital letters when she types it.) Many of you know her music, but instead of talking about the songs, she posted the following on Facebook which gives readers such as you and I some insights into the costs of making an album independently. If you’ve ever helped crowd-fund a project like this and wondered where the money goes, this might help. (In fairness, Facebook doesn’t offer italics!)


As you may or may not have seen, this past Friday (11/11/16) was the fruition of months of hard work on my new Christmas album, UNTO US (my 10th full-length record of my nearly 13-year career as a full-time musician). I have an incredible network of fans who are willing to support my music, and over 2,000 Kickstarter backers helped fund the making of UNTO US this summer.

Even though I’m an independent artist, I can still make a record of the same quality as a signed artist. I tracked in the same studios and hired the same producers, musicians and studio engineers a record label would hire. But, because I don’t have a label I’m responsible to pay all of these talented people. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the freedom this allows me, and this arrangement lets me create music and recordings which are consistent with who I am as an artist and a person.

The $81,000 pledged this summer made UNTO US one of Nashville’s top 25 most-funded Kickstarter campaigns to date, and I definitely count it as a success. However, just like most things in life, there’s more complexity beneath the surface. So before you picture my husband, Dave, and me counting our piles of money like Scrooge McDuck, let me pull back the curtain as we look at the breakdown of the expenses associated with the making of UNTO US.

THE NUMBERS BEHIND A SUCCESSFUL CAMPAIGN

$81,071 in pledges looks very impressive doesn’t it? I think so too.

Of course, Kickstarter needs to make money to keep their lights on, their staff paid and their website up and running. KICKSTARTER’S FEE = $4,023.

Kickstarter doesn’t process the credit card payments. They hire another company to do that. THE FEE FOR PAYMENT PROCESSING = $2,827.

We also needed to make sure the campaign was seen by lots of my fans over the course of the month of the campaign. THE FEE FOR FACEBOOK ADS $6,300

When it came time to charge the credit/debit cards of Kickstarter backers, there are often failed transactions and this resulted in $605 in lost revenue from PLEDGES THAT COULDN’T BE FULFILLED BY BACKERS.

Add all these deductions up and the fees come to -$13,756.

unto-us-jj-hellerTOTAL LEFT FOR THE MAKING OF UNTO US = $67,315

Making the record over the course of several months meant paying for the time of producers, engineers, studios, and musicians.
COST OF EVERYTHING YOU HEAR ON UNTO US = $49,400

I really want my records to look good, and this means paying for graphic design, photography, styling, clothing, hair, makeup and nails.
COST OF ALL DESIGN EXPENSES = $6,000

CDs and booklets were printed and assembled, then shipped to us. The album was also submitted to digital distributors (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc.).
COST OF MANUFACTURING/DISTRIBUTION EXPENSES = $8,570

Kickstarter rewards needed to be sent to backers in bubble mailers or boxes. Additional rewards needed to be designed as well. Plane tickets, rental car, hotels were purchased for two Kickstarter reward concerts.
COST OF KICKSTARTER REWARDS FULFILLMENT = $8,600

Promotion for the album included the creation of four lyric videos, the purchase of stock footage, video editing, location fees, website placements, publicist, more Facebook ads, and radio promotion.
COST OF PROMOTION EXPENSES SO FAR = $11,550

TOTAL EXPENSES FOR “UNTO US” = $84,120

If you’re keeping score, this leaves a deficit of $16,805 of additional expenses which we paid from our own pocket.

Keep in mind, Dave and I spent hours songwriting and discussing which popular Christmas songs should go on the record. We met with our producers to discuss how the project should eventually sound. I haven’t factored any of our time off the road making the album, or the cost of childcare into these calculations.

IT’S STILL WORTH IT

I didn’t make this tally to make anyone feel sorry for me. I get to make music for a living, and I love it! I just want to show whoever reads this post that making a professional-sounding record is a VERY EXPENSIVE endeavor. As digital streaming makes listening to music INCREASINGLY LESS EXPENSIVE for the listener, independent artists like me are depending on our fans more than ever.

This career is something I’m called to. It’s fulfilling, hard, rewarding and scary sometimes, but I can’t see myself doing anything else right now. UNTO US was a labor of love. I’m so proud of the musical moments we created in the studio, and I love imagining thousands of families creating Christmas memories with my music as a soundtrack.

My hope in breaking these figures down is that it provides a small window into the creation of the music we often take for granted. Buying a digital album for $10 is the equivalent of streaming one song over 2,000 times (over 116 hours of listening!). On behalf of all artists, especially those of us who are independent, we hope you will choose to invest in music you believe in.

*jj and dave heller

August 4, 2016

C201 Songs

Filed under: Christianity, music, worship — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:53 am

In the sidebar at Christianity 201, there are a number of worship songs linked with devotional articles we’ve done there. Many of these would be recognizable to those of you who feature modern worship in your church or listen to Christian radio, but I thought today we would include some which are a good fit here at Thinking Out Loud which may be know to some of you, but not others.






June 26, 2016

More from the Lost Songs Channel: CCM’s Early Days

Part two of the top-ranking songs on the YouTube channel I manage for Searchlight Book. See yesterday’s post for the top 5 Click through to YT for descriptions. And when I say top-ranking, realize this is a rather obscure YT channel. These are very old CCM songs and the criteria for choosing them was to select songs that had not been uploaded (that we could find) on the day they were posted.

#6 Noel Paul Stookey – Building Block (1982)

#8* Danniebelle Hall – Work The Works (1974)

#9 Wayne Watson – Born in Zion (1985)

#10 Craig Smith – God and Man at Table are Sat Down (1979)

#12* John Fischer – Righteous Man

*Items 7 and 11 on this site are spoken-word (non-music) extras.

Yes, John Fischer had two songs on this list. I always felt the chorus of the one featured today, Righteous Man, would make a great song for Promise Keepers.

June 25, 2016

Samples from the Lost Songs YouTube Channel

Today, the top-ranking songs on the YouTube channel I oversee which is sponsored by Searchlight Books but has never, to the best of my knowledge, posted anything that has anything to do with books. We think of it as a “Lost songs of Christian music” channel, and that’s what it should have been named; additionally we started out with songs that had not been posted by others, so these were intended to be unique in terms of what’s on YouTube. Click through to YT for descriptions. And when I say top-ranking, realize this is a rather obscure YT channel.  Again, remember these are very old CCM songs.

#1 Barry McGuire – Communion Song (1977)

#2 Ken Medema – Lord, Listen To Your Children Praying (1973)

#3 Scott Wesley Brown – I Wish You Jesus (197?)

#4 John Fischer – All Day Song (197?)

#5 Michael and Stormie Omartian – Seasons of the Soul (1978)

June 19, 2016

What’s going on with modern worship?

This weekend on the blog we’re introducing Australia’s Luke Goddard who along with his wife Peta, writes at From Frightened to Father (he explained the title to me). The article here appeared on his blog in April, but as a bonus, in addition for permission to reproduce the one below, he wrote an article just for us which appeared yesterday at Christianity 201.

This is a fairly lengthy piece for some of you, so as an alternative, some of the same material is covered on Luke’s podcast, Filtered Radio. (15 minutes) To leave a comment direct on Luke’s blog, click this link.

Ever since the 1970’s, Christian rock has had a large audience through praise bands in front of churches and in record stores (yes, physical record shops with actual music in them) through Maranatha! Music in California. Here is their history from their own website:

“Maranatha! Music was founded in 1971 by Chuck Smith Sr. of Calvary Chapel, to promote the “Jesus Music” his young hippie followers were writing and singing up and down the California coast. In the early years, Maranatha! Music started signing artists because of their passionate profession of faith through music. These songs became the influential calling card of the worship music genre of that time; they belong to the Maranatha! song catalogue today. Back then, the songs considered unsuitable for the ‘traditional church’ were still being sung by millions of young people around the world.  Pastor Chuck Smith, Chuck Fromm and Tommy Coomes were among the leaders of Maranatha! who were serving the church at that time.  The mission these faithful men began continues today: It is still the song of faith that leads people into the presence of God.” (Maranatha! Music, 2016).

baptism

May 5, 1973: Hundreds of Calvary Chapel members line Corona del Mar beach for baptism ceremony.

With this movement of musicians filling churches with hippie hair, ripped jeans, big beards and hip, melodic, catchy rootsy tunes (much like todays scene…) it gave Christianity something “alternative” to hang its hat on with music. Something wholly original, organic, birthed out of revival and centred on Jesus Christ. However, as this movement progressed, praise bands became more “mainstream” in churches, replacing hymn books and congregational singing led by a conductor to a band-led church experience with worship leaders being born out of this movement.

The 1980’s – Some good, some not so good…

In the 1980’s when the “self-esteem” reformation hit (which I touch on here), the music became part of a much larger “engineered” sound that was “planned” to be a part of moving an atmosphere into a particular direction. Since churches became larger, and the people attending became more broad in age, musical taste and preferences, the service had to accommodate this if it wanted to keep them in their seats. So they polled the world, and guess what? The world hates hymns! In fact, the world loves rock music! So soft rock became the weapon of choice for megachurches around the globe, and these growing churches appeared healthy (aesthetically), so smaller churches across America and Europe and Australia began mimicking every successful large churches’ praise band style, making it infiltrate even the most resistive traditional church. The tidal wave approaching was too big to hide from, so rock-music-infused praise bands got their way. They became very, very common. The problem is, this was a fad. Not the praise band, but the style. It had to change. So ever since the Calvary Chapel Jesus People praise music has maintained its rock roots, but simply undergone various degrees of changes in sound to catch up to the world. Right now (like, today in fact) Electronic Dance Music is the norm. Blending electronic drums with heavy synth, washy guitar, minimalistic dance beats and even programmed loops that contain sound effects, hits, pops of music or samples are all the norm amongst 13 year old and over-directed youth bands, and arena style churches. This style has gained traction existentially through the Hillsong Young and Free. This band catapulted the use of straight out trance synth, pulsing beats and using stabby samples into music, forming a catchy, melodic, dance-infused power trance feel, whilst somehow pretending to maintain that their music is Christian in theology and truth. Anything could be further from the truth. Here is a sample of one of their more recent efforts that has a huge following on radio:

I lived
Heart on a wire
Hand in the fire for so long
But You’ve shown me better
A new kind of love
It’s ever the one I want

I’m lifting you higher, higher
There’s nothing that I’d rather do
A sweet elevation of praises
There’s no one I love more than You

I never knew a love like this before
The kind of life that I cannot find on my own
I’ve seen the world but I have never been so sure
That I want Your heart
God, I just want to be where You are
Where You are
I just want to be where You are

Your love, like nothing I’ve seen
My wildest of dreams don’t come close
Life never no better than living like this
I cannot resist You Lord

I’m lifting you higher, higher
There’s nothing that I’d rather do
A sweet elevation of praises
There’s no one I love more than You

I never knew a love like this before
The kind of life that I cannot find on my own
I’ve seen the world but I have never been so sure
That I want Your heart
God, I just want to be where You are
Where You are
I just want to be where You are
Where You are
I just want to be where You are

And after all this time with You by my side
I can’t imagine what it’d be like on my own
I’ve made up my heart, this love is all I’ve got
And You’re the only one I know worth living for

A sweet elevation of praises
There’s no one I love more than You

I never knew a love like this before
The kind of life that I cannot find on my own
I’ve seen the world but I have never been so sure
That I want Your heart
God I just want to be where You are
Where You are
I just want to be where You are
Where You are
I just want to be where You are
Where You are
I just want to be where You are

Peeling back the layers is all it takes to have a good hard look at the overall theology of a movement or band, and like with Jesus Culture’s fixation on super sentimental love songs to God that are purely based on experiences, feelings and romanticized lyrics about our Holy God, Y&F manages to do the same thing but with a different musical style altogether. It’s the same infiltrating heresy of sappy love songs to God, but wrapped in different beats for clothing. The truth remains the same – the bands that have sprung from churches that preach complete heresy most of the time end up singing heresy in almost all of their songs, bar the odd one or two that remain orthodox. It’s hooking youth, young adults and parents into a wider, bigger, vaster movement called the “New Apostolic Reformation,” as well as mega-church purpose-driven philosophy which is absolutely contrary to God’s written word. And it has to stop!

So, back to rock as a sound… The rock scene took over praise music for the praise songs at the beginning of the praise band era in the early 1980’s, and songs were categorized quickly into “fast” and “slow” songs, which led to the traditional “2 fast songs/2 slow” etc. technique we now have today. Rock riffs began to make up the base recognition of a Christian song, instead o the lyrical content, and the way the song made the congregation “feel” began to swamp the use of songs. Instead of songs that were well written and musically beautiful, songs were written to create a particular mood for the service. So, loud punchy songs were used for the introduction to church, then music slowed down on cue for “worship” time after this. The music shift from singing a numbered hymn in a book of 4 or so verses, interconnected with a strong chorus sung in unison disappeared once “singing in the spirit” became a real thing. This technique was largely developed in Vineyard church through the Toronto Airport Vineyard Fellowship, that was the catalyst for the Toronto Blessing, which I speak of at large in my podcast. The sound developed from the “soaking” practices there, where one loses themselves in God’s presence and empties their minds, only to bathe in the music and feel washes of God’s love. This is an eastern meditation-linked musical technique, achievable with anyone anywhere with the right instrument, though, and has been proven to be a mind control technique in many studies. The simple fact is that with emotional and musical manipulation you can get people to believe anything, even wrong doctrine, if you sound sincere and emotional enough at that time. The fixation on modern bands to a persistent latch onto heavy synth drones, invoking emotions during preaching using music, and tactics that lead to using music as a prop in part of a larger production – the church service – has led to a cardboard cut out style of music that every modern worship band ended up trying to emulate. It affected preaching, teaching, service length, evangelism and even discernment in the church. Its all linked to watering the gospel down, and a ploy to destroy the overall power of the gospel. Instead of focusing on Christ, the gospel, the cross, God’s nature and what He’s done for us as sinners, songs are now written to show our devotion, make us feel happy (Planetshaker’s This Is Our Time highlights this tenfold) and steer our attention to how much we can do for God in our face-crunching work to please God with our dedication. This discusses how it got to that point.

What happened to theology?

Early church songs used to be God-honoring colorful palettes of sound biblical doctrine that exalted the cross, Christ, God’s holiness and other characteristics, focused on salvation of the sinner, and were easy to sing in a group. Since the early 1990’s contemporary Christian music in church has been rock focused (in music style). Guitar was introduced – even the worship leader used it to lead from (as I have done). Electric riffs became a high point in a song. Worship leaders were wearing what most rock acts were for that era. Congregations singing certain catchy lines together became the norm. In the late 1990’s Hillsong’s sound developed into a standard, setting the stage for what was to come for a good 9 years. I followed their music and played every major song from their albums from 2002 onward in many churches and ministry trips to other congregations. Their worship style became mainstream. The building riffs, the drums leaping into staggered fills to build to a chorus, the delayed, layered guitar with massive reverb. It all became “church music,” and it was good. It was seemingly harmless to have different instruments introduced over time. Entire YouTube tutorials are out there on how to achieve a “worship guitar sound” (and I have a pedal-board that achieves this if I want it). For a while it became an effortless success. But something happened right after Hillsong’s worship director changed. When Darlene Zschech left the ministry of Hillsong as senior worship director in 2010, the theology, sound and direction of Hillsong took a turn when it was handed to Joel Houston, son of Hillsong Sydney’s senior pastor Brian Houston. The theology disappeared from their music. It was subtle, in that there were always a few doctrinally sound songs on each album that followed, but by and large some theologically rich songs such as “God He Reigns,” “Mighty To Save,” At The Cross,” and “Worthy Is The Lamb.” These songs, that now sound quite dated, did contain some great theology and truths about God that are indeed found in scripture. But along the way somewhere the great writing & composition of Darlene got lost and each worship leader from Hillsong got the chance to flex their creative muscle and, well, a significant portion of Hillsong’s tracks became void of deep scripture-rooted theology. For example, “Children of the Light” from 2012’s Cornerstone album has a chorus of:

Set alight to follow
In the shadow of Your Name
The world is Yours and I know
Everything will find its place
Under Your Name

and the bridge is rather bizarre and jumbled in thought:

Children of the light
Blazing through the night
Taking back what the devil had stolen

Calling on Your Name
Breaking every chain
Jesus everlasting freedom

Running through the wild
Dancing in the fire
Taking back what the devil had stolen

Calling on Your Name
Breaking every chain
Jesus everlasting freedom

This kind of messy theology that’s vague, romantic and “cool” sounds great in a modern song structure… but doesn’t work well as a God-honoring song that will turn people to a resurrected Saviour: Jesus Christ. It certainly whips up a storm, but the heart of it is shallow and empty, like a foil wrapper that looks like a chocolate that is found to be nothing but a prank.

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This kind of writing by and large continues to plague modern music, from Hillsong’s extension band “Young and Free” to United’s youth albums, to Planetshakers and many younger generation bands. Everything seems very well engineered and edgy-sounding, yet somehow the reverence, awe and wonder of the God of the universe and His redeeming Holy Son appear absent. Large mega-church bands seem to have a penchant for selling large volumes of music, yet a deep neglect for the true heart of worship – pointing people to their risen King with deeply scriptural words that point people to Him in song as they sing together. The entire premise is to make music so exciting sounding, so emotional, so irresistible that there is no escape – some kind of emotion is evoked, but the truth is that a deeply satisfying, truly awe inspiring experience of worship can be found in a tiny church in a country town that only has two musicians, an old building and some committed Christians who fear God attending. The phrase that everything traditional is the “frozen chosen,” is a lie, and I have discovered this since leaving the Pentecostal scene and opening up my eyes to what God is truly doing in the hearts of men and women and children in other denominations that hold to Christ as their Saviour. The division that insulting traditional or creedal churches has produced is easily spotted when a team from a Pentecostal youth ministry comes invited to a traditional church to preach, and the young person gets up and rants on about how little their congregation is doing, how old everything is and how they have to change everything they do otherwise they’ll die a slow death. This is simply not the case! Good theology in song, even if it’s played in a modern context – is still a rock of a foundation for the church, and boosts the spirits of the congregation because it solidifies their belief that the scriptures are inerrant, that God is sovereign, that salvation is of the Lord, and that there is only One God and One Holy Trinity. This cannot be done with washy, romantic lyrics that flatter God and elevate man – this actually stunts true worship and a true understanding of our Lord Jesus Christ and His relationship to us.

Atmosphere. A god?

There’s a well documented story on how Elevation Churches’ staff told a disabled boy that he could not continue to worship with the congregation because he was “a distraction.” It highlighted, publicly, a major flaw in the modern evangelical belief of a worship service, and that is that it is about “feeling good” when a certain atmosphere is present. That atmosphere is one of fun, laughter, carefree, jubilation, reflection, silence, listening and quiet contemplation. This is all achievable in a controlled environment, but not in a random one. If I brought my 4 children to Elevation’s worship service they’d make noise. Not much, but enough to grab my attention if they wanted it. I would look at them, open my eyes, attend to their needs, tell them off, take them to the loo, look around, ponder, then shut my eyes again. At Elevation. That is because their worship style is modern – and by that I mean studio recording, arena stage, concert quality modern. It leaves no room for congregational singing. It’s a show. It’s filled with loud guitar, loud drums, loud PA, loud voices, loud leaders, loud devotion. But what about those who cannot sing in the key they’re in? They just stand by and watch the show. What about those who make noise and cannot focus on the songs? Well, they miss out on the atmosphere too. What about those who are disabled and maybe have a degenerative muscle condition that has forced them to drool and wear a bib and groan during speaking? Well, they’re part of the “atmosphere ruining crowd.” These people aren’t young, hip, with it, focused and driven… so they cannot be part of the service. Not in the same room as the band that’s for sure. Is this separatist? Yes. Is it wrong? Yes! Many people have attended church for millennia who have all kinds of issues with their bodies or minds, only to stay and hear the preaching and be saved, prayed for, ministered to, sung next to and encouraged. This is Christian welcoming and hospitality. This is what heaven is like – non-favoritist. Christians are to seek the good of their brothers and sisters, and build each other up in their Holy Faith, which has been delivered once for all the saints! When making noises during a service has become a reason to be booted out, then something’s wrong with the high view of corporate modern worship over the dignity of individuals made in God’s image who have come with their parents to listen to the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, lets get real here. I’m a worship leader & musician myself. I have been since I was 20. I started in youth group in Adelaide before I even had a girlfriend, and most certainly didn’t take in the brevity of what I was meant to be doing – pointing people to a crucified, risen Saviour who died for all mankind’s sins. Whilst learning how to worship lead in the Charismatic church, I had to learn from other worship leaders who would visit church how to do this well. I simply went by how they viewed the worship leader role, and what they concluded was a successful worship style/set/show for that congregation. It was usually information from the largest churches at the time e.g. Hillsong, Saddleback and Willow Creek, and the Contemporary Christian Music scene sound being translated into church as rocking as it could be without being irreverent. I only had charismatic, mega church worship leaders to learn from. Not accompanying musicians that served to back a congregation singing together, but rock stars who had their own albums who played electric guitar, drums, sang or played piano and led worship from any of these instruments. I only knew this model. So I learned about raising my hands. I learned about smiling politely the entire time so that the congregation were also smiling with me, mirroring my emotion. I learned about hearing from the Holy Spirit during a particularly quiet moment, or a moment building up to a crescendo from nothing, and riding it out. I learned how to play between songs and make them “flow” together well so that there were no “dead spots” in between the music (because that would kill the “atmosphere.”) I even learned how to lead a team like a business man leads a company using similar tactics and applying them to Christian men and women under me. The problem was that everything was a tactic to manipulate the congregation. Literally lead them into feeling certain ways at certain times, using certain sounds. Pad-esque sounds on guitar for quiet moments, overdrive and reverb for building choruses, yelling things into the mic that are positive when a moment builds & quietening down when things seemed to peter off. These are “leading” tactics I used to get what mood I wanted whenever possible. And they’re repeatable. And can be used anywhere to create a sense of expectancy, even if the preacher/teacher/speaker being introduced for the evening is heretical or downright blasé with handling God’s word. There is a real sense that a worship leader can create an environment that’s harmful to the people he’s meant to be leading in song, if he’s not careful at all. And this has happened many times. How many of us cringe when a band starts playing a hard rock line when a youth ministry leader hops up on stage to preach? It’s like introducing a WWF wrestler, only worse because it’s Christ’s holy church… and the preacher is meant to be above reproach, humble, able to teach etc….

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Church only looks like this… apparently

It’s a matter of telling the congregation to, “raise your hands… let go of your thoughts and drift off into mysticism…. don’t worry about anyone else around you… just go crazy… sit… stand… do whatever you want right now to worship the Lord…” And this could be used to get the reaction because the music matches that atmosphere. However, when you have 4 children, a wife, a job, a family, a car loan, a study assignment due… a schedule to keep… that “drifty” atmosphere can be snapped out of at any moment because of someone needing the toilet, a baby nappy change required or simply having to discipline someone for being too loud. This tactic only works in the right situation. It rarely works when responsibility, wandering thoughts and seeing through the light show occurs. There is only one audience that this works for – people who are on their own or a couple…

I’m saying all of this because there are better ways to do things than “what everyone else that’s a big church is doing.” Most modern churches have a formula and strategy for lighting, sound design, sets, props, target audience and feelings & comfort of the seeker. This is only valid if the point is to glorify Christ in it. There is no room in the church for excessively expensive sound design if it’s purely to entertain the sinner so that he feels more comfortable, because unless that church also couples it with preaching repentance from sin and forgiveness in Jesus Christ through His shed blood, then it’s absolutely money wasted, week after week, item after item. That’s simply an engineered attempt at pleasing the masses so that they’ll think Christianity is “relevant” for the sake of being relevant. No other. I’ve seen good examples of this, and bad, and everything in between as a Christian. Many pastors would balk at the idea of simply having a modern building and style of service purely for the comfort of sinners… the goal has to be that once people are there that they ultimately hear about our resurrected King who was crucified and rose again on the third day according to the scriptures. That’s always the goal of a pastor and a church – to preach Christ and Him crucified. This modern style of atmospheric worship can almost be pinned down to a few movements and people, but by and large it has been pop culture and charismatics that changed the landscape of worship for this last 4 decades. This quote from Matthew Sigler of Seedbed sums up how these are linked:

    “Many forget (or don’t know) that “contemporary” worship was inextricably linked to the Charismatic Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. This connection forged a musical style that was rooted in a particular understanding of the Spirit in worship. Specifically, the singing of praise and worship songs was understood sacramentally. God was uniquely encountered, by the Spirit, in congregational singing.

Several important aspects of this theology of congregational song are worth highlighting. First, a premium was placed on intimacy with Jesus in congregational singing. This emphasis was largely due to the influence of John Wimber and the Vineyard movement of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Though he was not the first to say so, Wimber emphasized that the Church needed to sing songs “to God” and not “about God.” Lyrically, this was manifest in the frequent use of the personal pronoun, “I.” Just scan through the catalogue of songs published by Vineyard Music during the 1980’s and see how many of them emphasize the importance of the individual engaging the second Person of the Trinity in the lyrics. While the intimacy motif wasn’t new in the Church, it was an important development in what would become known as “contemporary worship.”

So what’s the alternative? Well, it’s simply to cut out the excessive stuff that’s been plaguing the modern worship scene for so long. The lack of use of well thought out theology in songs, the lack of real depth to lyrics, the absence of Christ and Him crucified being the focal point of worship, and to utilize a wide variety of sounds instead of electronic dance music alone, followed by slow synth ridden layered Coldplay knock-offs. Hopping onto Bandcamp and searching for bands that contain “worship” as their tag quickly reveals a wonderfully colorful texture of a variety of peculiar, interesting, unique and barrier breaking music that will satisfy that longing for another way out of the same sounding stuff. Granted, there’s some weird stuff too… but some gems are hidden there for our eyes and ears. The sound of modern worship has begun to copy the world, and that alone is a poor footing to begin a movement from. We need solid writing again, reverence for the scriptures in song, attributes of God brought into our singing, and more songs that congregations can wholly sing together. Instead of 20 people standing around watching three people play their favorite songs each week in their comfortable keys, lets have that many people singing every line together of a modern hymn and bring back thoughtful, prayerful and decisively Christian music again. The church is begging for it!

July 17, 2015

Crossover Songs from the Past

In the early days of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) artists simply hit the streets with their music, often selling records out of the trunk of a car. As distribution solidified and the concert scene got more sophisticated, Christian solo acts and bands started dreaming of elusive crossover hit; the record that would go viral (though we didn’t have that expression back then) in the secular mainstream.

Often this became an obsession. One speaker at a conference I attended was quick to remind attendees, “If you’re going to crossover, you’ve got to take the cross over.” It was a good lesson and perhaps a bit prophetic, given the number of songs today that could easily pass as boyfriend/girlfriend love songs. When you factor in that the norm today is vertical worship music, it makes the love crush songs seem even more desperate for acceptance.

In the middle of all this however, something more significant was taking place. What I would call reverse crossover songs. To a young Christian, hearing these bands reinforcing their faith would be a huge encouragement. Today I want to highlight three of these songs, and if I get direct messages on Twitter or comments here with other suggestions, we might do more of these again some time. We’ll start with one that was in the link list a few weeks ago.

Given The Osmond Brothers Mormon (LDS) heritage, this song, He’s the Light of the World should come as no surprise. The lyrics have a high percentage of scripture borrowing with some lines you’ll recognize from The Sermon on the Mount.

This next one I was always aware of, but I don’t know if I’d ever listened to it at the time all the way through. (More on that at the end of this article.) This is the Chairmen of the Board, whose biggest hit was Gimme Just a Little More Time. This one is I’m On My Way to a Better Place. The quality isn’t great, but the lyrics are clear. (If anyone wants to send me a better quality mp3 by email, I’ll post it on my own channel.)

The last one we’ve featured here before, but it’s an always timely song. The Chi-Lites There Will Never Be Any Peace was also recorded by Christian band The Imperials.

Finally, the common link in all these is a radio show from that era, called A Joyful Noise with Paul Baker (aka Frank Edmondson). You’ll hear a telescoped version of these and other songs. With this, I have two requests. First, if anyone can tell me where Paul/Frank ended up, I’d appreciate it. Second, I’m trying to get my hands on a similar telescoped music demo of a similar radio show The Rock That Never Rolls with Brother Dale (aka Dale Yancey). I had a reel-to-reel version of it, but now I can’t even find that. I’d love to post that on the Lost Music channel on YouTube, sponsored by the people I work for, Searchlight Books. That show was light years ahead of its time.

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